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The Tulsi Gabbard Factor

Too much light blinds us,” Pascal wrote; “if the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise,” wrote William Blake.

The idea that, when pushed to extremes, things turn into their opposites seems to have arisen in one form or another many times and in many cultures.  It is epitomized in the Western philosophical tradition in Hegel’s account of the dialectical structure of the real.

Tulsi Gabbard’s announcement that she would run for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 2020 brought this to mind.

What on earth could her candidacy have to do with dialectical logic?  Bear with me on that.

There is a more immediate question to deal with first: Tulsi who?  Before long, if all goes well, that won’t be the first question in most Americans’ minds.

Since 2013, Gabbard has represented Hawaii’s second Congressional district.  For all but those who follow Congressional and/or Democratic Party politics closely, she is known mainly, if at all, for having resigned from the Democratic National Committee in 2016 in order to endorse Bernie Sanders in his bid to become the Party’s nominee.

If only for bucking the Clinton tide three years ago, something no other leading Democrat dared do, her candidacy deserves to be taken seriously indeed.

Pundits place her in the Sanders-Warren wing of the party.  The Democrats they use that label to designate are good on domestic issues – not socialist (even if they say they are), not radical, but generally progressive. On international relations, they are indistinguishable from their Democratic and Republican colleagues. Gabbard may be an exception to the rule.

She is too much an unknown quantity at this point to say for sure, but all indications are that she does indeed stand apart from the pack.  If they find it advantageous to do so, Democrats and their media flacks, progressive and mainstream alike, will surely make much of such differences as there may be. Inklings of tirades to come have already begun to appear.

Some of what they will find objectionable merits further scrutiny; some could be disabling.  On the other hand, it is precisely her differences from the others that make her candidacy interesting and potentially constructive.  If she is different from the others in the way that she seems to be, I say: vive la difference!

I would therefore urge everybody who wants to build a Left alternative within the framework of the Democratic Party to check her out.

Making the Democratic Party part of the solution, not a problem in its own right, is a daunting, some would say impossible, task.  But, for now, there is nowhere else in the electoral landscape for leftists to go.

I would therefore urge everybody opposed both to Trumpism and to the kinds of mainstream Democratic Party politics that enable it, to give her candidacy the most serious consideration.

***

I have argued: a) that focusing on the race for the nomination now, with the 2020 election so far off, is a distraction from more worthwhile political endeavors; and b) that, within certain limits, it doesn’t much matter whom the Democrats nominate.  Setting aside considerations (a) and (b), I also suggested (c) that, were he to run, my favored candidate as of now would be Sherrod Brown.

 

Brown too is in the Sanders-Warren wing of the party; he stands out from the others mainly for the emphasis he places on reviving, defending, and strengthening the labor movement.

 

Because Gabbard’s father was a Pacific Islander, from American Samoa, and because she is Hindu, her candidacy seems tailor made for liberals who put “identity” ahead of class, provided that the identities favored are those of persons of color, the more underrepresented the better.  Brown’s, on the other hand, should appeal more to those who put class interests first, and who take the interests of white (male, older) workers as seriously as any others.

In fact, though, the two of them seem to have views on class and identity politics that are remarkably similar, sometimes even in emphasis. I would venture that this is because the two take their commitments to the interests they represent and aim to serve seriously.  The fact that “too much light blinds us” seems particularly salient in Gabbard’s case, but it is pertinent to Brown’s candidacy too.

I still stand by (a), though Gabbard’s announcement has caused me to wonder whether according more attention to the primaries and caucuses now might be a more productive use of time and effort than I had thought.

I stand by (b) too, though I am now more inclined to accord importance to differences within the Democratic fold than I was a few weeks ago, mainly because the Democratic Party is now less homogenous than it used to be.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the media face of the phenomenon, but there are two, three, many, perhaps dozens of AOCs in Congress now.  This is the best news there has been in American politics in living memory.

As for (c), I am still inclined to think that, all things considered, Brown would be a better choice than any of the others, but Gabbard is by no means out of the running.  There is no point in dwelling on this now, however, because there is no urgency about the choice, especially for people who do not have huge sums of money to throw around or influence to peddle or wield.

The public deliberations that the primaries and caucuses encourage have a lot to do with how the electoral process goes, but very little to do with fundamental questions of political import.  Electoral campaigns are more like marketing exercises than philosophical deliberations; debating the merits of one or another candidate is like debating the merits of one or another ice cream flavor.

If Gabbard’s candidacy breaks out of that pattern, it will be because it changes the conversation in ways that Brown’s – or Sanders’ or Warren’s or any of the other aspirants’ – have little or no chance of doing.

***

The reason why it generally does not matter who becomes the nominee is that the winner, whomever he or she is, will end up doing more or less the same thing.

I don’t just mean that the winner will serve capital by helping to secure a system fashioned and shaped to serve the interests of the same master, the capitalist class, the owners of the principal external means of production in capitalist societies.  Everyone who is part of any government in any capitalist state does that.

The United States is indeed “exceptional” inasmuch as systemic pressures towards conformity are unusually powerful and constraining in the American case; so are deeply ingrained psychological dispositions to conform to mainstream practices and ideas.

This is why choosing candidates through primary elections and caucuses is like nothing so much as choosing pigs in a poke.

Mainstream Democratic Party politicians are, if anything, even more devoted to political conformism than their Republican counterparts.  Theirs is a party that exists to quash radical and progressive impulses; it does a good job of it too.

Harbingers of hope keep springing up inside the Democratic Party ambit nevertheless; Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008 was an extreme example.

Democrats can be counted on too to disappoint.  In that department, they are as reliable as can be.

With the new Congress seated and at work, the winds of change seem to be blowing again.  Is this just another instance of hope springing eternal or this time is it for real?

The jury is out on that, but I would venture that, because this time the initiative came from the base, not the top, that more optimism than is usual just might be warranted.

Whether or not this is right, the same guidelines for supporting or withholding support from candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president apply.

Rule Number One ought to be that the patently unfit need not apply.  This should go without saying.  But as everyone who has been alive and conscious during the past two years knows all too well, thoroughgoing miscreants sometimes do make it past the post. There is no reason to think that the problem is confined to the Republican Party; the evidence is overwhelming that Democrats are scoundrels too.

However, it is unlikely that the Democratic Party in 2020 will offer up choices anywhere near as unfit as every single Republican candidate for office in 2016, not just Trump, plainly was.  You never know, however.

Beyond that one very obvious condition, guidelines for choosing one or another pig in the poke are arbitrary or idiosyncratic, or both.

Thus there are candidates whom I, for one, just don’t want in my face day in and day out for four or eight long years.  On the Republican side, that would be everybody; it is a lot of Democrats too.

There are first of all plutocrats of the Michael Bloomberg type; after Trump, the last thing anybody needs is another billionaire.  I would say the same of diehard Clintonites like Terry McAuliffe.  It was Clintonite (neoliberal, liberal imperialist) politics that made Trump possible, and it was Hillary Clinton who pushed him over the line right into the Oval Office.

Would that we had orators like the great Saint-Just (1767-1794) now proclaiming that “this great humanity will not be truly happy until the last billionaire is strangled on the guts of the last Clinonite liberal.”

Of course, we cannot rule out every Democratic contender who supported Hillary in 2016; if we did, there would be no one left – Sanders supported her in the general election and even Gabbard came on board.  Also, in fairness, it must be said that there was a plausible, if not exactly compelling, lesser evil case to be made for supporting, or at least voting for, Clinton when she was running against Trump.

But having a true believer of the Clintonite persuasion in public life for the next four or eight years would surely count as a “cruel and unusual” collective punishment.  We had a soft version of that with Obama; we already paid our dues.

I would also eliminate any and all proponents of laws to criminalize support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement; they offend not only the First Amendment, but also fundamental principles of political morality and common decency. Obama clone, Corey Booker, is not the only Democrat who would fail to make the cut on that criterion.

Above all, I’d rule out Joe Biden; the time to see the back of him was years ago.  There is no point now in belaboring the point; there are so many arguments that could be adduced. However, if the Party bigwigs get their way, and if their media flacks who proclaim his electability keep it up, it may be necessary to adduce them.  Biden has been dragging the party to the right seemingly from time immemorial.

Thus, in the 2008 Democratic Party debates, he and Clinton, the only two rivals Obama would eventually empower, ran to Obama’s right.  Biden ran to Clinton’s right as well. But ultimately what it comes down to, in my case at least, is that I just can’t stand him.

***

Purge the list on these or other criteria and there will still be many Democrats left contending for the job.  Eliminate the ones that no sane pundit could fit into the Sander-Warren category – the ones who stand to the right of Eisenhower Republicans, as Democrats have been doing for years — and there will still be lots of pigs in the poke to choose from.

In 2016, Hillary’s “glass ceiling” argument loomed large.  We will probably never get beyond the idea that one exists until, at last, a woman is elected president.  The fact remains, though, that “it’s the politics, stupid,” and that while the electorate is a long way from gender-indifferent, it has been many decades since women were effectively unelectable.

Countries relevantly like the United States elect women to their highest offices all the time.  So do countries where the status of women is much worse than here.  Surely, if Benazir Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, could be elected Prime Minister of Pakistan three decades ago, Hillary Clinton, Bill’s wife, could have been elected in 2016.  In a sense, she was elected; she did win the popular vote.

She lost in the Electoral College, though – but no more because of her private parts and secondary sexual characteristics than because of Russian “meddling.”  What did her in was her own ineptitude and the Clintonite politics she promoted.

Even so, it is time for a woman to get the nod; that would be a good thing, even if there would be nothing politically momentous about it.  Gabbard is as good for being the first as anyone else.

She is also comparatively young and so new to the scene that, until quite recently, hardly anyone even heard of her.   To hear the pundits tell it, in 2020, these will all be positive attributes.

Where she stands out, though, where she differs from the rest of the pack, is in foreign affairs.

Some Democratic aspirants’ imperialist inclinations are milder than others — Sanders exemplifies the most gentle extreme; Warren, as best one can tell, not so much.  Many of the others cluster around the other end of the spectrum.

But they all buy into the line promoted by America’s foreign affairs establishment and endorsed by presidents as different (or alike) as Reagan and Obama that the American dominated world order concocted in the aftermath of the Second World War is a blessing for humankind, that America is “the shining city on the hill,” and therefore that support for “American values” ought to take precedence over amoral considerations of national interest.

The hypocrisy is mind-boggling, both in its applications to particular cases, and in its underlying theory.

The self-righteous liberal imperialism of the Clintons and of the foreign affairs specialists they empowered reek of these hypocrisies.  So does the Russophobia that came to the fore as soon as it became clear to leading Democrats in the summer of 2016 that they might soon be in the market for excuses – not so much for losing to Trump, that was still unthinkable at the time, but for the lackluster campaign they were running.

Gabbard seems to think of international relations in a different register, seeing states as rational agents pursuing their national interests – mainly in self-preservation and self-defense.   Academics call this way of thinking about geopolitics “realism’; it is old-fashioned Realpolitik projected onto the global stage.

The difference between Gabbard and the others is most evident in views about what is to be done now in Syria.  Gabbard visited that country and met with its elected leader Bashar Al-Assad, much to the consternation of liberals in the pre-Trump State Department who decided, early on, that regime change would be their main objective – even beyond defeating the Islamic State.

The liberals were moved by what they take to be moral demands – Assad, they say and perhaps also believe, is a “fiend” who “kills his own people,” purportedly sometimes with poison gas, and who, not incidentally, is currently on Benjamin Netanyahu’ enemies list. The “good guys,” whomever they are (it keeps changing) cannot abide this, and must therefore kill a lot of people too, not with anything that would offend their sensibilities, but with, Obama’s favorite, bomb and weaponized drones.  How civilized!

These self-righteous moralists have actually exacerbated the level of murder and mayhem; and also made it more difficult for the Syrian government not just to prevail as it has been doing for some time in Syria’s on-going civil war, but also to vanquish the other side.

It is telling that, in this case as in many others, going back to the wars fought to dismember the former Yugoslavia, the so-called good guys are in plain violation of international law – they are aggressors, in Syria despite the opposition of the country’s government 00 while Vladimir Putin, the Clintonite liberal’s demon supreme, is painfully mindful of it.  Except for Gabbard, the Democratic Party honchos who would like to be their party’s nominee for president in 2020 are the least mindful of all.

If Gabbard’s candidacy catches on enough for her to become a threat to prevailing interests within the Democratic Party, expect to hear more about how her policies are of a piece with Assad’s, the demon of the hour, and also, of course with Vladimir Putin’s, the devil incarnate in the eyes not just of Clintonite liberals, but also of the anti-Trump “conservatives” who have overrun CNN and MSNBC (=MSDNC), and of the national security state “experts” whom one sees at all hours of the day and night on those increasingly unbearable cable networks.

Worse still, expect to hear more about how Gabbard’s views coincide with Trump’s.  If anyone really is the devil incarnate, he’s the man. But face it: when he’s right, he’s right, and compared to Clintonite Democrats, on more issues than foreign affairs – on trade, for example — he’s often more right than they.

Better a leftwing realist, which is what Gabbard seems to be, than a Clintonite moralist.  Even so, Gabbard may have to pay dearly for holding better – potentially less lethal — ideas.

And if not that, expect her to have to deal repeatedly with the fact that her very Christian father, the Samoan, was reportedly a proponent of conversion therapy for homosexuals, and was especially and very publically opposed to gay marriage.  Tulsi herself is on record for having voiced similar views while a teenager and very young adult.

She has apologized for that to the LGBT community on many occasions, and ever since her first run for elective office in Hawaii, also while still quite young, her record on LGBT issues has been impeccable.

One expects that, within the Trump base, they would celebrate the odious, and that the general public would be reluctant to hold offspring accountable for the sins of the fathers – say, in the Trump (Fred) and Kushner (Charles) families — even when the off spring are palpably worse.  This is only fair, but one has to wonder if liberals, notorious for their self-righteousness and hypocrisy, will be similarly forgiving.  If Gabbard doesn’t make it, it should not be for that.

I am more worried about the Hindu connection if, as has been reported (I have no idea how correctly), Gabbard’s views accord with or lean towards those of the Hindu nationalist BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party.  Islamophobia is already a major problem in the United States; we don’t need to add to it by importing lethal anti-Muslim animosities from the Indian subcontinent.

I hope and expect that this is a baseless concern — not a case of something, in this case support for diversity, pushed to the extreme and turning into its opposite — and that it can and will be quickly addressed, dismissed and forgotten.

In order to establish a genuine Left alternative in our politics, the prevailing liberal imperialist foreign policy orthodoxy must be taken on and defeated.  If Gabbard can help with that, then more power to her.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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